In a smooth transition of power, Maithripala Sirisena has been sworn in as the new president of Sri Lanka. The election process was marked by a high turnout and absence of violence, for which the country’s election commission deserves credit. Sirisena has been gracious in acknowledging the role of his former leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lost the election after 10 years in office, in defeating the LTTE. He has said there will not be any retributive action against the outgoing regime. This augurs well for democracy in the island republic, which has been through difficult times.
Having said that, the new president would know that the nation did not vote for him to continue with Rajapaksa’s policies or approach to governance. In fact, Sirisena had termed his resignation from the Rajapaksa administration and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), just after the announcement of the election, as an act of protest against the government’s policies. The country’s main opposition, the United National Party, the Tamil National Alliance, various Muslim groups, a section of the SLFP under former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, and even sections of the Buddhist clergy, rallied around him because he stood up to Rajapaksa. The Rajapaksa administration had come to be identified with nepotism, corruption and high-handedness. To be responsive to the trust placed in him by the voters, Sirisena must critically examine his predecessor’s record. He will need to deliver on his promise to undo the concentration of executive powers in the president’s office and repair the damage done to state institutions under Rajapaksa. The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary must be restored and law enforcers made accountable.
An urgent challenge for Sirisena is to address the concerns and anxieties of the minorities who have been at the receiving end of the rising tide of Sinhala and Buddhist nationalism. During the campaign, he had refused to condemn chauvinistic mobilisations, perhaps to avoid any consolidation in Rajapaksa’s favour. Now he needs to step in and lay out an agenda of administrative and political action. It is necessary for Sirisena to re-imagine Sri Lanka as a multi- ethnic and religious nation and bury the Rajapaksa legacy, which saw the state as a custodian of majoritarian interests. That, and a critical assessment of the Chinese involvement in Sri Lankan affairs as offered by the UNP, would also help Sirisena take Colombo’s ties with New Delhi to a higher level.
Colombo powershift is Delhi opportunity
by C Raja Mohan | Indian Express, January 10, 2015
As a new government led by Maithripala Sirisena takes charge in Sri Lanka, India has a valuable opportunity to arrest the drift in bilateral relations over the last few years.
The government of Narendra Modi, less constrained internally than the UPA government, is in a good position to rebuild the partnership with a country that occupies a vital position on India’s maritime frontiers to the south.
The reluctance of the outgoing president Mahinda Rajapaksa to address India’s concerns on much needed political reconciliation with the Tamil minority after the 2009 victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE) was a major source of tension between New Delhi nd Colombo.
India also watched warily Rajapaksa’s increasing political warmth towards Beijing. China’s growing presence in the Sri Lankan economy, especially its involvement in the development of strategic infrastructure like the Hambantota port and the frequent appearance of Chinese naval ships at the Colombo port had generated considerable anxiety in India’s national security establishment.
Rajapaksa’s active support to the Chinese proposal on the Maritime Silk Road during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Sri Lanka last September has magnified New Delhi’s concerns about Colombo’s embrace of Beijing.
The UPA government, which was supportive of Rajapaksa’s war against the LTTE, steadily lost goodwill in Colombo amid vacillations in its Sri Lanka policy under pressure from parties in Tamil Nadu.
New Delhi’s flip flops at Geneva in the UN debates on the human rights situation in Lanka were compounded by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision, under pressure from the Congress leadership, to skip visiting Colombo for the Commonwealth Summit in November 2013.
In this situation, Modi sought to restore some flexibility to Indian diplomacy by inviting Rajapaksa to his swearing-in last May over the objections of then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.
With a solid majority of its own in the Lok Sabha, the Modi government must now find a better balance between India’s interest in securing Tamil minority rights in Sri Lanka and the broader imperative of developing a stronger strategic partnership with Colombo.
Although Sirisena has won strong backing from the Tamil minority in the election, he may not necessarily find it easy to address India’s concerns, given his need to maintain support from the majority Sinhala community. India, then, will have to move with considerable political finesse and in taking up the Tamil question afresh with the new government. New Delhi can’t be seen as either abandoning the issue or trying to impose its will on Colombo.
Dealing with Colombo’s Beijing relationship might be equally tricky. Rajapaksa’s dealings, economic and political, with China have become controversial within Sri Lanka, and Sirisena has promised to evolve a more balanced approach in Colombo’s relations with both Beijing and New Delhi.
It might be unwise for India, however, to expect that Colombo will simply discard the China relationship that has given it a range of new economic and strategic options. For the Modi government, the challenge lies in finding ways to deepen its own economic and military cooperation with Sri Lanka, and accelerate the implementation of a variety of projects with Colombo.
There is no doubt that the issues involved — domestic political order and independent foreign policy — are highly sensitive to Sri Lanka. Yet, the new government in Colombo, and the stronger political dispensation in New Delhi, have the room to explore the prospects for an accommodation of each other’s interests.
An early visit to Colombo by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj as part of India’s “neighbourhood first” diplomacy could indeed be the first step towards that exploration.